My parents loved each other but were so antithetical in temperament and interests that they could not live together in peace. They separated when I was six. I saw my father once a year when, on my birthday, he would come down from Westchester. We would go to Manhattan, less than an hour by cab but culturally a galaxy away from where I was living in the Bronx. We’d take in a movie, visit a bookstore, and then have dinner. My most vivid childhood memories include seeing Quo Vadis and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court at the Radio City Music Hall. If these outings had something to do with my life-long love of movies, my father had an even greater influence when it came to reading.
When I was between the ages of three and six, my father would read me to sleep by reciting poetry, some of it good, some not (as I later realized), but always rhythmic. It all sank in. For years afterward, I could recite from memory, with a little rehearsing, many short lyrics; parts of my father’s favorite soliloquies from Shakespeare, especially from Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest; and some longer complete poems, including Poe’s “The Raven,” Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and the intoxicating poem that probably kept me out of jail and eventually led me, after a rather circuitous journey, to become a professor of literature: Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Until I was sixteen, I lived in my grandmother’s house with my mother, an uncle, and Nana’s second husband, a hapless alcoholic. My mother was a good and loving woman, but my grandmother was the glue that held it all together. When she died, when I was thirteen, it was all in pieces, all coherence gone. My mother and uncle both worked fulltime, my grandfather part-time, when he was sober. With little money in the house and left largely on my own, I, along with my closest friend, Jimmy, quickly got into what one of the policemen at the 45th precinct alliteratively described as “a shitload more than our share of trouble.”
We robbed for adventure and because we had no money to buy necessities like soda and, later, beer. But we both liked to read. Once, when we broke into a house that was locked down because of a recent fire, we restricted our thievery to books. Jimmy took an armful of texts on astronomy and physics. (He later became the Borough Engineer of the Bronx, and, in retirement, taught Physics at Bronx Community College; he actually understood quantum mechanics.) My carefully-selected booty included two novels by Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which resonated with me for obvious reasons and had, like Keats’s Nightingale Ode, a permanent impact on my life, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I discovered had fewer songs and a great deal more carnage than the Bing Crosby-Rhonda Fleming version I’d viewed at Radio City.
Speaking of carnage, Jimmy and I got into many fights (not with each other) because we were “angry young men.” Jimmy was so skilled a streetfighter that the local gangsters tried to turn him into a pro. As troublemakers who enjoyed their stories and occasionally amused them, we had been taken under the wing of the neighborhood bookmakers, loan sharks, and elbow-breakers. But Jimmy, Italian and smart, was not about to let the gangsters get their claws into him where real money was involved. So we ran numbers and I picked up some cash at the local gangster bar, The Midget, partnering with one or another Mafioso on the bowling machine, a game I was as skilled at as Jimmy was with his fists.
This diverting if less than idyllic existence came to a screechy-ass halt when we were busted for a caper harshly labeled grand larceny. Given the option of prison or the armed forces, Jimmy made the obvious choice, predictably enlisting in the Marines. I would later enlist in the Army, but, for the time being, departed from St. Helena’s High School to take up residence at Salesian in New Rochelle, a reform school euphemistically yclept an institution of “preventive education.”
It was the best thing that could have happened to me. Chaos was replaced by discipline. For the first time in years I had three meals a day. And that was not the only regularity. We rose at five in the morning, attended Mass every morning and (I’m not kidding) twice on Sunday, studied, engaged in vigorous exercise, and toppled into bed at 8:00 pm. One of the Salesian Brothers, detecting my interest in literature, lent me books and mentored me. I read incessantly.
During that year, my grandfather was struck and killed on a highway he was trying to cross, the shoes from which he was ejected left thirty feet behind, still tightly laced. I was released to attend the funeral. After the wake, at the reception held in his son’s (my other uncle’s) house, I was informed of something of which I’d been clueless: “You know,” my uncle said casually, “a lot of your father’s books are in the basement.”
I went down, and there they were: hundreds of books piled in the corner of a basement that was always damp and so wet when it rained that wooden planks were laid out to walk on. I was simultaneously excited and furious. Though most of the books had been drenched so often over the years that they were discolored and reeking of mold, I was able to salvage a dozen or so, slightly curled and smelly, but readable. The best of them included a two-volume edition of U.S. Grant’s superb Memoirs; Heritage Club editions of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo; my father’s childhood copies of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe; the first volume of Pieras Béaslaí’s biography of my father’s (and his father’s) Irish hero, Michael Collins; and, the pick of the litter, a first edition of T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, with the tipped-in portraits of Faisal and other Arab leaders intact. For more reasons than this coincidence, Michael Collins is coupled in my mind with Lawrence of Arabia.
Further exploration revealed a separate box containing, in relatively good shape, the 52-volume set of Harvard Classics (the so-called “Five Foot Shelf of Books”). I had an idea. Before returning to Salesian, I got Jimmy, who was on furlough, and a friend who actually owned a car to drive up to my father’s apartment in White Plains. It was after 4:00 and my father, who worked just around the corner at AT&T, would be home by 5:00. Jimmy and I got in through a second-story window (old times), and, while I rearranged books on my father’s shelves, Jimmy opened the front door. Within fifteen minutes we had loaded in the entire set of the Harvard Classics, an edition published the year I was born and on which my father had not laid eyes since he and my mother had separated.
We made our exit. Within a half hour, my father rounded the corner. I gave him ten minutes, then followed him in, excited to see his response to this miraculous reappearance of at least some of his long-lost books. He was sitting on the couch, with one of the books open on his lap, and weeping. As I should have anticipated, but foolishly hadn’t, I’d intruded with more than the Harvard Classics. I’d evoked old memories, and thrust on the poor man thoughts even deeper than lost books. Later, when I used to visit him once a week, he said he was glad I’d returned those books—which I now have, along with his 30-volume Encyclopedia Britannica (the 1975 15th edition), four or five volumes of which we would often find scattered on the floor the morning after we had been discussing history and literature. It’s hard to believe that I’m now 15 years older than my father was when he died, and that he has been dead for half my life—a life he shaped more than I fully realized before I sat down and wrote these few paragraphs.
So books have a personal resonance for me. Some of the classics that meant most to me as a troubled and trouble-making teenager—among them Huckleberry Finn and Robinson Crusoe, Othello and Shakespeare’s last complete play, The Tempest—though they helped save my life, are now themselves on an endangered-species list. Conservatives who have long railed against left-wing professors supposedly hell-bent on indoctrinating malleable students, have now been joined (politics does “make strange bedfellows”) by anti-racist teachers who also attack the Academy, this time as a citadel of white supremacy and Western colonialism.
This assault by educational reformers is part of an attempt to accommodate the needs of black, indigenous, and other students of color. This is laudable, though it passes over the fact that men like W. E. B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X immersed themselves in the classics, both to transcend limitations and to find, even in an oppressive culture, ideas pregnant with the potential to liberate. Now it is thought that students already marginalized need to be protected from anything that might conceivably offend them. Under this cocoon theory of education, the canon is being purged and the curriculum shaped by such prescriptive pronouncements as those emanating from the recent conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. That conference reflected the growing influence of #DisruptTexts, a well-intended but dangerous movement. By way of countering that movement to cleanse the curriculum, I’ll close as I began by turning to personal experience (this one recent), and to its ramifications.
Last month, I found myself involved in controversy when I expressed reservations about the poem presented by Amanda Gorman at the splendid ceremony celebrating the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Like everyone else, I was charmed by Ms. Gorman’s appearance, vitality, and enthusiastic delivery, but I ventured to remark later to some friends that “The Hill We Climb” seemed to me less a poem than a pastiche, a litany of uplifting clichés, syncopated by rather obvious alliteration. I was told that I was subjecting Amanda to a “colonizing white gaze,” and that I should hear her poem as a sort of rap piece. It was an analogy that had not escaped me, but which had not altered my aesthetic judgment of the poem as a poem, especially after I’d had a chance to read it in print in the next morning’s New York Times.
One friend who differed with me later sent me an article, “Inauguration Star Amanda Gorman to Perform at Super Bowl.” I’d noticed that item myself, along with reports that Ms. Gorman had just signed million-dollar contracts for three upcoming books of poetry, already at the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Though one can’t help thinking of the many first-rate poets whose books are quickly remaindered or go unpublished in the first place, their contents unread, I do not begrudge Amanda Gorman her success (including a February Time cover and three-page interview with Michelle Obama), and take no relish in playing curmudgeon. The apotheosis of Amanda is a benign aberration. She’s a delightful and talented young woman, and she most certainly rose to the occasion on the glorious day of the Inauguration. But that doesn’t make her, despite the current adulation, more than a mediocre poet.
Helen Vendler began a recent essay on the poet Robert Hayden by quoting Wallace Stevens. It is necessary, according to Stevens, to embody “the poem of the idea within the poem of the words.” The gifted Hayden, who happened to be African-American, knew that a poem written by a minority poet had to be as strong in the poetry of its “words” as in the poetry of its ‘idea,“ and that writers belonging to "a so-called minority” had to be “violently opposed to having our work viewed…entirely in the light of sociology and politics.” A leading American poet recently confided to friends that tears came to her eyes listening to Amanda on Inauguration Day, knowing that “The Hill We Climb” would be taken by the country as a whole as genuine poetry. I would be delighted rather than disturbed by this Amanda-awe if it weren’t symptomatic of a much larger issue.
The cowardice and moral sickness of the still Trump-dominated Republican Party is so repellent that we run the risk of letting the latest iteration of the old leftist, anti-racist attack on canonical literature, and even on standard English, pass as if it were no big thing. Much of the agenda of the new anti-racists consists of welcome and tonic reform, especially in the sordid wake of Donald Trump, and the continued killing of black men by police. But some of the recent edicts, including attacks on the “privileging” of standard English, amount to an alternative and counter-productive form of indoctrination.
And the purely ideological, aesthetic-free recommendation of texts to be shunned or taught is not only wrong intrinsically; it provides fuel for those on the Right who accurately portray this over-the-top backlash against “white supremacist language” and “Western colonialism” as “political correctness” and censorship in its most sweeping form, “cancel culture.” When we oust from the curriculum Shakespeare, condemned as a white supremacist advocate of colonialism, and fall out for Amanda Gorman, whose uplifting “idea” is conveyed with neither originality nor in figurative language adequate to her theme, we’ve replaced our criteria for judging literary excellence with good feelings and political bathwater.
Since Shakespeare and The Tempest are principal targets, I might add that those who want to ban The Tempest are not only losing an enchanting work of art, they are depriving their students (to get to the crux of the complaint) of the opportunity to engage a character, Caliban, who inspired Latin and South American artists to challenge Shakespeare and even creatively rewrite his play, as Aimé Césaire did in Une Tempête. Such creative responses differ from the damage inflicted on The Tempest by critics and directors who distort what Shakespeare wrote in order to have the play yield a message closer to their own politics. And we are selling Shakespeare short aesthetically as well, forgetting the imaginative power and empathy that allowed him to partially transcend his own time by giving Caliban a voice that evokes compassion as much as revulsion, even enriching Caliban’s brutish gabble with that exquisite speech about “the sounds and sweet airs” of which “the isle is full”: music so beautiful that “in dreaming,/ The clouds methought would open, and show riches/ Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked, /I cried to dream again.” Such moments exemplify the greatness of Shakespeare—of whose authorial death rumors have been greatly exaggerated.
Curricular decision-makers at many elementary schools, high schools, and colleges, have jumped with both feet onto this woke bandwagon. This is the sort of well-intentioned foolishness to which progressives are prone, a paved road to hell since it short-changes students and provides ammunition for a creature like Trump, who knowingly played the anti-elitist, anti PC-card in both campaigns. It helps explain why he could get elected and very nearly re-elected. Those of us who consider ourselves sane liberals better get more intelligently “woke” ourselves before it’s too late, politically, academically, and culturally.